07 September 2014

A Sunday stroll from the Melchsee to the Engstlensee

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 350 metres
Height loss: 350 metres

Melchsee-Frutt – Tannensee – Tannalp – Engstlenalp – Engstlensee and back

A more gentle walk today, after yesterday's excursion to the Sidelhorn. A friend from work has a weekend guest from Germany, and they want to do something easy but scenic. I have a ticket for a concert at four in the afternoon, and am also happy to something short and not too strenuous. This pleasant walk is part of the well-known "four lakes walk" which starts from Melchsee-Frutt and goes to Engelberg via a series of mountain lakes: Melchsee, Tannensee, Engstlensee and Trüebsee. For time and logistic reasons, we decide to amputate the last of the four lakes, and do our own "three lakes" variation. We go by car to Stöckalp, and take the cable-car up to Melchsee-Frutt, where the temperature is significantly higher than the forecast would have us believe. Our German visitor came without hiking equipment, but my friend has lent her an old pair of boots which should be more than good enough for such an easy walk. 

The Melchsee is a lovely lake, provided you avoid looking at the ugly resort buildings that disfigure its northern edge. Looking towards its southern side, white cumulus clouds are reflected in the still surface of the water, with a backdrop of sombre mountains still wreathed in darker overnight clouds that have not yet cleared. A notice wards us that the path to the Tannensee has suffered from this summer's rainy weather, and that it is "sodden" and only suitable for those with good footwear. True, the path is vaguely muddy in places, but it is still among the drier surfaces on which I have walked this year!

Leaving the pylons and cables of the ski area behind, we climb gently uphill along a marshy valley where the colours already suggest that autumn is not far away, and soon come to our second lake, the Tannensee. This is an artificial lake, its western end blocked by a low, grass-covered dam, across which we walk to follow the lake's southern bank. Fishermen are standing on rocks here, enjoying their hobby in what, it has to be said, is an absolutely perfect location: what more could one wish for as a backdrop while waiting for a bite? 

At the far end of the lake, we walk past the restaurant, the whitewashed chapel and the few houses at Tannalp, then begin the descent to our third lake, the Engstlensee. This is the most "mountainous" part of the route, as the path works its way down a steep rock face, using a grassy band between cliffs that rear up above and plunge down below. The way down is secured with a cable, although the path is a metre or more wide and not in any way dangerous. Down below, the lovely Gental valley runs away westwards towards the peaks of the Bernese Oberland, still shrouded in cloud but doing their best to break through.

The path from Tannalp down to Engstlenalp
At this point, a very odd thing happens. Those of you who read this blog regularly will remember that last weekend, one of my hiking partners lost the sole of her right boot in the middle of a hike. I had never seen this happen before: now it happens again. Our German visitor's borrowed hiking boots, which have not been worn for two years, decide to self-destruct. Not only does the sole of her right boot fall off very suddenly: ten minutes later, the same thing happens to the other boot. The only common denominator I can find in all this is my friend from the office, present on both occasions. I will have to be very careful next time we go hiking together!

With botched-up boots, we continue to Engstlenalp and its hotel. I was last here in August 2010 in horribly wet conditions; it's nice to see the place in sunlight today. As we walk up the hill towards the lake, I point out the annexe where I had my poltergeist incident while walking the Alpine Pass Route four years ago.

To get the best views of the Engstlensee would mean walking up to its far and, which we cannot be bothered to do, so we just have a quick look at its blue-green water and the pretty reflections made by the trees on the far side, before returning to the Hotel Engstlenalp for lunch. My two companions have Rösti with cheese and fried eggs respectively; I go for a "Käseschnitte mit Zwiebeln, Speck und Ei", a delicious and totally unhealthy mixture of melted cheese, ham, and onions on a bread base, baked in the oven and topped with a fried egg and picked vegetables. All washed down with beer, it goes without saying. Mmmmm… 

Looking across to the Bernese Oberland from Tannalp
I am feeling far too happy with life by now to want to rush back for my concert, so we decide to take the rest of the afternoon slowly. This is probably a good thing, as the initial climb back up from Engstlenalp to Tannalp is quite a challenge with such full stomachs. Additional bits and pieces continue to fall off the borrowed boots, and one of the soles is discarded in a litter bin. We decide to stay on the road for the rest of the way back: at least our visitor will be walking on a dry, flat surface and will not have to contend with mud seeping in and stones breaking through the internal foam which has now become the external layer of her footwear. 

A hint of autumn
The light is completely different now compared to this morning, with the late afternoon sun accentuating the autumnal atmosphere. We arrive back at Melchsee-Frutt at four o'clock: twenty kilometres away in Lucerne my concert is starting, but I really don't mind at all.

06 September 2014

September on the Sidelhorn

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T3
Height gain: 700 metres
Height loss: 700 metres

Grimselpass – Husegghütte – Sidelhorn – Triebtenseeli - Grimselpass

Ah, September at last! My favourite month for walking in the mountains, with all its promise of crisp mornings, limpid air and colours accentuated by the lower sun. As if to confirm my optimism, the month has started with a whole weekend of perfect hiking weather, a real rarity this summer.

Today's walk brings me to my highest point of the summer. The Sidelhorn is a dark pyramid of rock set up above the Grimselpass, right on the border between the Bernese Oberland and Valais. I start by getting an early train from Lucerne over the Brünigpass to Meiringen. On the almost empty train, a railway employee is working his way through the carriage, emptying the litter-bins into a big black dustbin bag. Having just thrown away a paper coffee cup, I helpfully retrieve it from the bin and hand it to the man to save him the effort. He tut-tuts annoyedly, makes me put my coffee cup back in the bin… then takes the bin and empties it into his big black bag. Oh well, at least I tried…

In Meiringen (which I am amused to learn is called "Meringue" in French), I change to a post bus that climbs up the Haslital valley, then winds its way up numerous hairpins to reach the Grimselpass at 2,164 metres. Starting the walk at such a high altitude may not be common, but it does have its advantages, not least the fact that the summit is only 600 metres higher up.

The pass is not the loveliest of places, it has to be said. Crossed by a major road, it is popular with motorists and motorcyclists out for a drive, and as such is a crowded and noisy place. The area is also used intensely for hydro-electric power generation, and a fair number of dams and pylons add another level of human intrusion to the landscape. Even without all this human intervention, the Grimsel would be a barren place: there is not a tree in sight, the only green in the landscape is provided by the lichen that has attached itself to the rock.

The Totesee, at the Grimselpass
Leaving the bustle of the pass, I set off as soon as I have finished plastering myself with sun cream, climbing quickly above the lugubriously-named Totesee (or "dead lake"). The path is steep and rough from the outset, climbing in tight zigzags up and away from the pass, the noise of the traffic gradually diminishing but never quite disappearing altogether. In many places, large flat stones have been laid on the path to form semi-natural staircases; in other places, the way up crosses huge, easily-angled slabs of light grey rock. Behind me, to the east, wisps of cloud cling to the wall of mountains bordering the Haslital: somewhere behind those mountains is the immense whiteness of the Trift glacier and the high Alpine territory that stretches away to the Dammastock. Ahead and below me, the milky grey-green waters of the Grimselsee look cold and impenetrable. In a marshy hollow, a little pool bordered with cotton grass makes an attractive foreground for a photo of the mountains away beyond the lake.

Not far above this pool, at an altitude of 2,441 metres, I reach the Husegghütte, a long, low stone hut set up on a hump as if to make the most of the views to the north and the east. Here, for the first time, the giants of the Bernese Oberland come into view, most prominent among them being the Lauteraarhorn, standing out from the rest by being covered in what looks like recently fallen snow. The Sidelhorn, my destination, also comes properly into view now. The way up is clear: the mountain's north-east ridge runs almost down to where I am standing. Clear maybe… easy certainly not, as the ridge looks steep, dark and forbidding.

The summit of the Sidelhorn. The route follows the ridge from right to left.
Oberaar glacier
In reality though, there are no particular difficulties between here and the summit. The way up becomes increasingly rocky, but there is almost always a clear path to follow. The last 50 metres or so are the steepest: here, the use of the hands is needed for me to hoist myself up some big rocky steps. There is no real danger though, the ridge is not in any way exposed, and it proves to be an entertaining little scramble to reach the summit with its big, iron cross.

The top
The view from the Sidelhorn's summit is amazing, looking as it does right into the heart of two of the Bernese Oberland's wildest glacial valleys. To the west is the snow-covered Oberaar glacier, running down to the lake of the same name. Further north, beyond the end of the Grimselsee, the mostly rubble-covered Lauteraar glacier runs almost flat deep into the heart of the mountains, surrounded by the Oberland's highest peaks.

Lateraarhorn and Lauteraar glacier
The rocky summit of the Sidelhorn is crowded on this sunny Saturday, so does not make for an especially peaceful place for lunch. There is a large group up here with seven or eight young children, which of course generates a fair bit of noise. "Caroline, don't go over there, it's dangerous!" "Manuel, take that sandwich over to Annina!" "Aaron, do you want a piece of chocolate? Yes, I know you don't like milk chocolate, this is plain!" "Caroline, I said DON'T go over there"… and so on. It's too rocky for a siesta anyway – there is not a square metre that isn't covered by sharp rock – so I finish my sandwiches and set off down the south-west ridge.

This is a somewhat more serious prospect than the ridge by which I came up. On the way up, there was always a path of sorts. Here, there is nothing but a chaos of boulders, as though the world's biggest dumper truck had emptied a vast load of rubble on top of the mountain. Although there is no danger of falling over the edge of any precipices, the going is painfully slow. Finding footholds and handholds is not always easy, in fact just working out where to go next is not always easy. Many of the rocks are unstable, getting from one to the next sometimes involves a big stretch, and in more than one place, big holes in between boulders await unwary legs. It takes me a slow, careful half an hour to reach the saddle at 2,689 metres from where an easier path branches off to the right. 

The south-west ridge is a chaos of boulders
Easier maybe, but still uncomfortable, the path drops down steeply through loose rubble towards the little Triebtenseeli, whose dark blue water contrasts surprisingly with the milky glacial meltwater of the bigger Grimselsee just behind. Now the going becomes much easier: above the lake I find a good path which runs eastwards below the northern slopes of the Sidelhorn, back towards my starting point. Climbing steadily at first, the path soon levels out and eventually brings me back to the Husegghütte. I have an hour to make it back down to the Grimselpass before the bus leaves: half an hour proves to be enough. A short walk maybe – only four hours – but one which has posed one or two technical challenges and which, for the first time this summer, has given me the impression of having reached a proper mountain summit.

Contrasting lakes

30 August 2014

A night at the Voralphütte

Time: 2 days
Grading: T2 (one section T4)
Height gain: 1450 metres
Height loss: 1150 metres

Göschenen – Voralphütte - Wiegen

A group of seven of us set off for this two-day walk with a night up in the mountains. I meet a friend at the station in Lucerne, and we join another friend on the train; she has travelled across from Neuchâtel for the weekend. Two more are waiting for us at the station in Göschenen, having arrived on a different train, and the last two arrive shortly after by car.

It is a cool, cloudy morning (this is Göschenen after all), but I am very pleasantly surprised by the weather, the forecast having led me to expect a good soaking at least for the first couple of hours. But the overnight rain has moved away, and the cloud seems to be lifting fast.

For the first hour, we follow an easy path along the bottom of the Göschenertal. Wet grass alternates with squelchy mud, and our boots soon lose any illusion of cleanness. Below the hamlet of Wiggen, we cross the river and the valley road, and start to climb up a narrow, often slippery forest path. In a clearing, the window-boxes of an old stone and wooded chalet are ablaze with red, orange and yellow flowers. A bit higher up, we meet the road for the last time as it hairpins its way up the steep-sided valley.

Now the path continues up in wide zigzags, at an easy gradient, follwing a mountain stram that tumbles down over a chaos of light-coloured stone blocks. At the far end of each zigzag, the path brings us close up to the base of high, slabby cliffs whose stone is shining in the midday sun. The day has become warm, with significant amounts of blue sky overhead. At a place where the path briefly flattens out, a large, sloping boulder on the bank of the rushing river provides a pretty, if rather noisy place to have lunch. All around are huge boulders, some almost black while others, especially those in the bed of the river, are almost white in colour. From a distance, it is hard to tell that they are made of granite; they could equally well be polystyrene, snow or huge meringues.

A most attractive spot for lunch
Huge boulders of white stone
A few more zigzags bring us up above the tree line, and now the valley broadens out as the gradient eases. Up ahead, we get our first view of the 3,500-metre Sustenhorn, with glaciers tumbling down from it towards the valley at an impossibly steep angle: you have to wonder why they do not simply snap off under the weight of the ice and come crashing down into the valley. Sadly, this will also be our last view of the Sustenhorn in its entirety, as the higher we progress into the valley and into the afternoon, the lower the cloud comes down. At this point, the sole of my Neuchâtel friend's right boot decides to part company with the rest of the boot's structure, and starts to flap about with every step she takes. A bootlace wound around underneath her foot and tied on top does enough to get her to the hut.

The Sustenhorn and the Voralp valley
By the time we reach the Voralphütte at about four o'clock, the cloud base is not far above us and it has become sufficiently cold for us to retreat inside rather than staying out on the terrace. The hut warden provides us with a welcoming cup of tea, then shows us to a very comfortable ten-bed dormitory: the hut is not fully booked, he tells us, so the other three beds will not be occupied.

Back downstairs for a beer, then a second beer goes the same way as the first. Beer, laughter, a warm atmosphere in the wood-panelled room, and in no time at all it is time for a very tasty dinner. A chicken soup with almonds and a definite curry flavour, a big bowl of salad with a delicious sauce, then a hearty main course of beef stew and mashed potatoes… just what you need after a few hours' walking. We stay up until quite late, talking, playing Uno and drinking wine until finally, at half past ten, tiredness gets the upper hand and we turn in for the night. 

The Voralphütte, a very comfortable place to spend a night in the mountains
Sunday morning is cool and cloudy, with no summits in view and rain forecast for the afternoon. Over breakfast, the warden tells us that the hut is only 25 years old (from its traditional design I had thought it was much older), the previous building having been completely swept away by an avalanche. I ask about easy hiking options around the hut, wanting to do a bit more than just walk back down the way we came up. But the possibilities up here are limited: all the paths from the hut are blue-and-white marked alpine routes, with the exception of the one up which we came yesterday. The warden suggests that we could go further up the valley to the start of the glacier, an easy half an hour's walk. Or, he says, there is the two-hour "Panoramaweg" which, although an alpine route, is at the easier end of the scale.

We decide to at least go as far as the glacier. Two of the group will anyway not be able to go any further, as they have to be back down in the valley by early afternoon for a colleague's 50th birthday event. The hut warden has provided my boot-stricken friend with superglue and string, the combination of which is remarkably successful in holding her footwear together for the rest of the day.

It does not take long for the landscape to become totally mineral. Within ten minutes of leaving the hut, we are walking in a desert-like landscape of stones, between dark, rocky valley sides that rise up before disappearing into the gloom of the low cloud. Occasionally, a timid ray of sun lights up this stony wilderness, highlighting the incredibly diverse colour of the boulders and pebbles that make up the landscape. Ahead, the pass of the Sustenjoch beckons temptingly, but to get there, and down the other side to the bus stop at the Sustenpass is a serious mountain expedition, well beyond my capabilities.

A mineral wasteland leads up to the Sustenjoch
By the time we reach the place where the Panoramaweg branches off, the weather seems to be improving, with some blue sky in evidence. The five of us who do not have any time constraints decide to give it a try; after all, we can always turn back if it gets too difficult. Up we go, following blue and white waymarks painted on rocks. The going is easy at first, as the narrow path angles up across steep but not dangerous slopes. Bit by bit though, the sensation of a big drop not far away to the right increases. The path steepens, becomes narrower, crosses an area of slippery grass, soaking wet from overnight rain. We cross a first stream easily, round a rocky shoulder on the edge of the void, then climb up in steep zigzags to cross a second, somewhat larger stream where keeping dry feet is more of a challenge. Now the path becomes significantly more difficult, angling up across exposed slopes towards a line of crags. There is a definite feeling that we must be almost at the highest point, but I am starting to feel distinctly unsure of myself. Mist suddenly rolls in and envelopes us in its grey clamminess, immediately turning the small crags ahead into towering, menacing cliffs. The way ahead turns a tall rock on the outside, requiring two or three exposed-looking steps on what has become very slippery ground. I decide that I have seen enough, and announce that I am turning back; the others can carry on if they want, I will meet them back down at the hut. Group solidarity prevails though, and all five of us turn back. With my confidence gone, the slippery way back to the path junction at the foot of the glacier seems ten times more difficult than it did going up. Every muscle in my legs tenses up; 24 hours later, my thighs are still complaining about the twenty or so minutes that it took to get back onto solid ground.

Despite having turned back, all of us agree that it was a worthwhile thing to have attempted, and that the scenary made it worthwhile despite the cloud. In dry, sunny conditions I am fairly certain that we would have carried on. Instead, we walk back down to the hut, where we have a break to drink water and chat with the warden, who is enjoying an easy day with few or no guests booked in for the night – snow is forecast for this evening, he tells us, that will keep customers away. The job is never boring though, he says, even on a day without clients, there is always something that needs repairing, a path that needs waymarking or a helicopter full of food and drink to unload.

We follow yesterday's route back down the valley, towards a sky that is becoming increasingly heavy with cloud. As we descend, unusually, the temperature drops: the day is getting colder and colder, and suddenly the forecast snow does not seem such an odd idea. The clouds become thicker and more oppressive; the slabby cliffs that glistened in yesterday morning's sun are now as black and sinister as the walls of Mordor. We speculate about how many minutes it will be before we feel the first raindrops; I guess six minutes, the friend with the string boots, more optimistic, thinks that we will stay dry. She is right: we arrive at the bus stop above Wiggen at three, and it is still not raining. Forty minutes later, as the sound of the post-bus horn announces its arrival, we are still dry. Another two minutes, we are all inside the bus… and the heavens open. On a weekend when rain was forecast for both days, we have managed to avoid it completely, and are all in agreement that we have been very lucky.

Needless to say, back in Lucerne, I get absolutely soaked walking home from the station!


24 August 2014

A short walk on the Regenflüeli

Time: 3.5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 625 metres
Height loss: 625 metres

Eigenthal – Rosenboden – Regenflüeli – Ober Honegg - Eigenthal

I have planned a short walk this Sunday, a walk with two very specific purposes: firstly, to break in a new pair of walking boots, and secondly, to see how my sore tendon will stand up to a bit of exertion after my misadventure in the Engadin almost two weeks ago.

I have decided to take it very slowly today, not wanting to put my leg under too much pressure. The walk itself will only take about four hours, so I can take my time, do some sketching, enjoy the late summer sun. But when the alarm goes off at 7:30, the first thing I hear is the noise of rain outside. Not just a shower either, the sky is uniform grey and the cloud is low. I go back to bed, but an hour later there is no change. I abandon the idea of going to the mountains – I can always break my boots in by walking round Lucerne town centre, even though that might look a bit odd – and go to sleep again.

When I wake for the third time, at 9:45, the sun is shining. I am annoyed with myself: had I got up two hours ago, I would already be up in the hills enjoying this sunshine. Now, by the time I have had breakfast and got the bus up to Eigenthal, it will be lunchtime, a bit late to be setting out for a walk! On the other hand, if I drive rather than waiting for the next bus, I could be up there by eleven… and although I am usually a staunch defender of public transport, on this occasion I throw my principles to the wind and set off by car. The road to Eigenthal is closed as a result of storm damage, and I have to make a substantial detour via Malters and Schwarzenberg to reach the starting point of the walk. The area suffered very serious damage from torrential rain while I was away on holiday, and I will see plenty of evidence of this damage today.

At Eigenthal, I have a rather unpleasant experience. I need a 5 franc coin to pay for the car park. I only have a 10 franc note, but a couple pulls up on a motorbike and I ask them, in my best German, if they have change. The woman starts to look for money but her companion stops her and says to me, in a very unfriendly tone of voice: "Speak to me in Swiss German". I repeat (putting on what must be a horribly fake Swiss German accent) than I need money for the parking meter, then apologetically explain that I am English and that the local Lucerne dialect is not yet on the curriculum of schools in the UK. The man's attitude changes immediately on learning that I am English (I can only assume he thought I was German); he becomes more friendly and his girlfriend insists on giving me 5 francs with nothing in exchange. It's my first experience of anti-foreigner behaviour in Switzerland, and it rather spoils the start of the walk. 

A pastoral start in Eigenthal
The walk begins in a pastoral setting, as I follow a little stream across fields where cows are looking after some very small calves. The ground is wet and spongy underfoot, and it will only get worse… As the gradient steepens, to say that the path is a bit boggy would be doing it a profound injustice. Every step brings sloshing, glooping noises as I sink into the mud up to my ankles. At least the new boots are going to get a good test of the quality of their waterproofing! Discarding an old pair of hiking boots is always a wrench, but during my two weeks' hiking in Bavaria and Austria, I realised that the ones I have been using since 2010 had reached the end of the road, having become completely unable to grip any more on wet rock. I have been using the same model of boots for the last 15 years, but this time I was unable to find the same ones, and have taken the daring step of switching to a completely different brand. They seem comfortable though, which is reassuring.

The initial steep climb is mostly in forest, where I overtake a group of four people who are looking for mushrooms. The damp conditions would certainly appear to be suited to this activity, and they seem to be enjoying some success . The woodland then gives way to a steep, boggy pasture where the going is made slow by the need to navigate to find the relatively dry bits – these being the bits where I only sink in up to the ankle, rather than all the way to the top of my boots. Finally I reach the farmhouse at Rosenboden, beyond which things temporarily get a bit easier.

The Regenflüeli from Rosenboden
Now the path runs horizontally across steep grass slopes. The sound of cowbells wafts up from the valley, beyond which the rock walls of the Pilatus' north face rise up threateningly before disappearing into the clouds. The sunshine which greeted my third attempt to get out of bed is shining brightly away to the north, but up here in the hills, it is still very much overcast. The Regenflüeli, today's summit, appears up ahead above a line of greyish-brown cliffs, and I stop for twenty minutes to sketch the landscape.

Above the next farm, Gumm, the path deteriorates severely. Everywhere here is evidence of the storm of three weeks ago: there are landslides everywhere, and in between the landslides, rushing water has cut deep, muddy ravines into the ground. The path itself seems to be the muddiest part of this whole mudscape, and I spend an uncomfortable half-hour working my way up a valley, then up an equally muddy ridge until the large cross on the Regenflüeli's summit comes into view. 

A bit muddy...
The view is superb despite this hill's very modest altitude of 1582 metres. Northwards are the sun-bathed lowlands and the lakes that dot their valleys. Also in that direction the urban area around Lucerne, stretching away north along the Reuss valley in a seemingly uninterrupted mass of buildings. Further east, one of Lake Lucerne's many arms is visible, its blue water spread out underneath the long range of the Rigi. Closer at hand, the Pilatus is still hiding its head in the clouds. Tiny dots move up and down across the sky as the old cable-car that goes up to its summit from Kriens does its job for almost the last time: next weekend it will close for good, to be replaced by a new cable car next spring.

The summit of the Regenflüeli
I have lunch on the Regenflüeli's summit, then leave a sketch in the summit book, a sketch which I have to finish in rather a hurry as it starts to rain, a reminder that this hill's name includes the German word for rain. I definitely do not fancy the idea of going back down the mudbath of a path that I came up, so I head off straight down the steep, grassy east face of the hill, aiming for the farmhouse at Gumm below. It proves to be a good move; although the slope is steep and the ground is gorged with water, it's not half as unpleasant as the way up.

Back at Gumm, I opt for a different way down to the valley, but it is not an option that I would recommend: the farm track that leads down via Ober Honegg is steep, and for most of the way has been paved with concrete blocks to facilitate vehicle access to the farms. Still, the day has served a useful purpose before a more strenuous mountain excursion next weekend, and both of the tests have been passed. I have no blisters, the boots will need some more walking in but seem to be comfortable enough. And, maybe more importantly, my sore leg has shown no signs of playing up again. Not the most exciting day out maybe – and probably the muddiest I have ever experienced – but it has served its purpose. 

12 August 2014

A walk in the Upper Engadin, from Roseg to Sils Maria

Time: 5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 850 metres
Height loss: 1050 metres

Roseg – Fuorcla Surlej – Sils Maria

For my first visit to the Engadin region in the far east of Switzerland, I arrive as part of a large group of French and Belgian hikers who for the last ten days have been walking in cool, cloudy and often wet conditions across the Bavarian and Tyrolean Alps. Rather foolishly, I have been telling my companions for the last few days that the Engadin enjoys a particularly sunny micro-climate, and that it is usually the last place in Switzerland to still be dry even when it's raining everywhere else. It looks like the weather gods are going to punish me for my rash statements though: as the little red train of the Rhätische Bahn advances southwards towards Pontresina, there is little sign that the low clouds are magically going to be replaced by warm sunshine. And in the Val Roseg, where we are staying overnight before tomorrow's walk, the landscape is cold and grey. There is little to see of the imposing landscape at the valley's southern end, just a few patches of glacier poking out of the low cloud here and there.

A gloomy evening in the Val Roseg
Over a beer on the (for today) inappropriately-named Sonnenterrasse of the Hotel Roseg Gletscher, we speculate about tomorrow's weather: will we get the hoped-for views of the Bernina massif, or just another soaking and wet feet? One of the group has seen the TV weather forecast and brings news of gloom and doom. I have found a copy of today's Blick, whose forecasters seem to be hedging their bets, predicting a mixture of sun, rain, cloud, showers and thunderstorms. I consult the Meteoschweiz website on my mobile phone, and get a slightly more optimistic picture: rain is a certainty, but there should also be dry periods and possibly even some sunshine: pretty much the same mixed bag as we have been getting for the last week and more.

Tuesday morning dawns dry, with blue sky in evidence, but by the time we have had breakfast and are ready to start walking at half past eight, the cloud has come right back down to ground level, and it is in wet, foggy conditions that we set off. As we move slowly uphill in our rain gear, it is hard to identify the different members of the group, a long line of identical dark Goretex hoods, jackets, waterproof trousers and blue Deuter rucksack covers. Only our guide stands out from the crowd; up ahead at the front of the trudging line, he has opted for an umbrella rather than the regulation hood.

Streams flowing down the Val Roseg
The path is easy and we quickly gain height. Down below, the multiple streams flowing out of the lake below the Roseg glacier form an intricate pattern across the valley floor. By the isolated chalet at Alp Surovel, a momentary semi-lifting of the cloud provokes a rush for cameras, in the hope that the view will clear enough to be able to capture at least something of the surrounding scenery. But the cloud comes down again, the rain starts again and, as we gain altitude, a cold wind starts to blow, a reminder that snow is forecast at quite low altitudes tomorrow. I am glad that I remembered to put a pair of gloves in my pack, otherwise my hands would have quickly become very cold.

A cold uphill slog to the Fuorcla Surlej pass
And then, miraculously, as we reach the 2,500-metre contour, the weather improves. First of all the sky away south-westwards turns from dark to light grey, then patches of blue start to appear. Great ribbons of cloud float across the dark walls of the mountains on the far side of the valley, tearing apart to reveal pointed peaks, buttresses and towers. What was until now grey monotony is transformed into a landscape of plunging glaciers and soaring white ridges, climbing up towards still hidden summits. The Vadret da Roseg glacier which shuts off the valley at its southern end is finally revealed in all its icy, snowy majesty.

Suddenly, the cloud starts to clear...
... revealing dark peaks...
... and snowy glaciers.
We reach the highest point of the walk, the 2755-metre Fuorcla de Surlej pass, at about half past eleven. It's early for lunch, but there is a refuge at the pass and, in today's conditions, nobody fancies the idea of picnicking outside when there's a warm restaurant to hand. We go inside, remove our wet rain jackets and trousers, order tea and soup and warm ourselves up. As we wait for our soup, the cloud briefly clears completely from the big mountains to the east: there is the 4048-metre Piz Bernina and its 3937-metre satellite, the Piz Roseg. We all dash outside, cameras at the ready, and just have time to take a few quick snapshots before new swathes of cloud roll in, hiding the summits as though they had never been there at all. The soup arrives, and is excellent: a tasty Bündner Gerstensuppe made with pearl barley and vegetables, served with sausages, bread and mustard: soup it may be, but sometimes soup can be a meal in itself!

For a few fleeting minutes, the summits of the Bernina massif are visible
On the western side of the pass, the weather is set fair, with blue sky, warm sunshine and widespread views stretching away to the summits beyond the main Engadin valley. The first part of the way down is not particularly attractive though: the foreground is dominated by the ugly infrastructure of the Piz Corvatsch cable car, with its pylons and blockhaus-style buildings. The path itself is a broad, rough track which looks like it may well be a ski slope in winter. But once again, the 2,500-metre mark brings a radical change. We pass under the cables, which are now out of sight and out of mind, and the broad track gives way to a narrow path. Down below, the big glacial lakes of Silvaplana and Sils appear, their water a deep, turquoise colour, their surface dotted with the bright colours of dozens of kitesurfers and windsurfers. Pine trees grow in unlikely positions on rocky outcrops, little wooden bridges take us over rushing streams and, away in the distance, the chic resort of St. Moritz appears. We reach the tree line, and continue downhill on a lovely, rather muddy and slippery path through woods where the perfume of pine-needles dominates. 

Entirely different weather and scenery on the western side of the pass
At Alp Präsura, a lonely farmhouse in a clearing, we stop for a rest in the warm afternoon sun. On taking my water-bottle out of my rucksack, I realise that apart from a cup of tea at lunchtime, I have not drunk anything all day: in this morning's bad conditions, we did not stop at all. I have a bit of a bad habit of not drinking enough when I hike, I really have to force myself to remember to take in enough liquid. On this occasion, the lack of water proves to be my undoing. As we set off again for the last half an hour of descent to Sils, I feel a niggling ache just above my right ankle which was not there before. Over the next 20 minutes, the ache develops into a persistent pain, shooting up the tendon above my ankle and along my right shin. Luckily we have almost reached the end of the day's walk, so not too much damage is done. It's bad enough though: at the hotel where we are spending the night, going up and downstairs is painful, and the following morning I have to resign myself to the fact that I am not going to be able to walk for six hours with a thousand metres of up and down.

The remainder of the group sets off in cold, pouring rain, heading for the Passo del Muretto, over which they will cross into Italy. For my part, I head for home: bus to St. Moritz, then another little red train which takes me over the Albula line to Chur. Torrential rain falls all the way; the rivers are frighteningly high, the cloud desperately low. On arriving home, I discover that the train immediately after the one I was on was hit by a landslide and derailed, with several people seriously injured as one of the coaches plunged several metres down the steep embankment. My niggling tendons suddenly pale into insignificance…

19 July 2014

A hot day on the Hochstollen

Time: 5 hours
Grading: T2+
Height gain: 660 metres
Height loss: 1330 metres

Melchsee-Frutt – Hochstollen – Käserstatt - Wasserwendi

After a scorching hot week which is threatening to degenerate into thunderstorms later in the weekend, I choose Saturday for my last walk before the summer holidays, rather than my more usual Sunday. In a week's time I will be off for a lazy few days on the Atlantic coast of France, then a much more energetic two weeks' hiking across part of Bavaria, Austria and the Engadine.

I meet a friend at the station where, at 8 in the morning, it is already very warm indeed. So warm in fact that both of us have taken the unusual step of exposing our normally well-hidden and shamefully white legs. A combination of train, bus and cable car take us up to Melchsee-Frutt, a wonderfully-situated mountain resort surrounded by an amphitheatre of peaks of all shapes and sizes.

The air is thankfully a bit cooler up here, and there is a nice breeze blowing as we set off westwards down a broad, stony track. The 2480-metre Hochstollen, our target for the day, rears up directly ahead, vertically rocky on this side and seemingly unassailable. Passing a couple of nondescript little lakes on our right, we soon come to the larger Blausee, a pretty, shallow lake whose water is more green than blue but nonetheless looks very inviting indeed… though I suspect that anyone thinking of going in for a swim would soon incur the wrath of the numerous fishermen dotted around the lake's banks.

The Blausee and the Hochstollen
Beyond the end of the lake, the path begins to climb quite steeply, passing through herds of cows, some of whom have unusually resonant, loud bells round their necks. The path angles up across surprisingly green pastureland, a reminder that we have recently had one of the wettest summer weeks I can remember. Soon we reach the ridge at a point marked on the map as Abgschütz (2263 metres), from where there is a superb view back down to the high Melchsee-Frutt plateau, with its lakes strung out into the distance. The little Blausee is right at our feet, then the Melchsee itself, then the Tannensee in the middle distance and finally the beautiful Engstlensee, way away in the hazy distance. All of this is set against a backdrop of high mountains and glaciers, in which the Titlis is prominent, as is another glacier-covered mountain which may be the Sustenhorn. We stop here for a much-needed drinks break, sitting on the grassy ridge top and enjoying the view as we take big gulps from fast-emptying water bottles.

The view eastwards from Abgschütz is extensive
 Now we head southwards towards the summit, hidden for the time being by rocky outcrops in the foreground. As we top a short rise, the view opens up to the south, and suddenly the giant summits of the Bernese Oberland are there in front of us, with the Wetterhorn dominating the valley that runs up to the Grosse Scheidegg. The path becomes a bit more demanding than I had expected, becoming narrow and airy as it crosses very steep grassy slopes below the crest of the ridge. Concentration is required for half an hour, before the ridge broadens out again at the base of the Hochstollen's summit slopes. The last hundred metres are steep but easy zigzags up a shaly hillside that is not unlike the top part of the way up to the Pilatus, above the Klimsenkapelle. Just below the summit, a signpost warns that care is needed on the route that we have just come up: they could have told us that before we started!

The path crosses steep slopes where some care is needed, heading for the 2480-metre Hochstollen in the background.
The summit itself is grassy and well populated with walkers either eating lunch or resting. We find a nicely-angled grass slope to eat our sandwiches, quiche and carrot cake, before settling down for a half-hour siesta under a burning sun. Despite the heat, I drape a fleece over my bare legs to keep them from frying completely. Beside us, a group of people are using an app on a mobile phone to identify the distant peaks and glaciers. Most prominent to the south is the huge expanse of the Trift glacier, while south-westwards there are numerous Bernese summits to tick off: Finsteraarhorn, Schreckhorn, Wetterhorn, Dossen and the tumbling ice of the Rosenlaui glacier, vertical and menacing above the Reichenbach valley.

Rather than going back down the same way as originally planned, we decide on an alternative descent on the Hasliberg side of the ridge. A narrow path drops down below the summit, then rises to cross a rocky tower. A slightly exposed passage here is secured with a handrail… or rather was secured, as the handrail appears to have been sat on by a very large elephant and is not much good for anything. We drop down below an isolated pinnacle of layered rock in the middle of which is a sizeable hole, then on down to a saddle in the ridge where a very steep-looking path branches off back down towards Melchsee-Frutt, down a rubble-filled gully.

Rock formations below the summit of the Hochstollen
Shortly beyond this point, we leave the ridge path, which continues over the Glogghuis and Rothorn, two much more challenging summits which I suspect will always be beyond my capacities, though my friend remembers being taken over them as a teenager and living to tell the tale. Now we start the descent proper, steeply down through pastureland where an assortment of cows in various colour schemes graze. We soon reach the cable car station at Käserstatt, where the sunny terrace of the restaurant makes the perfect place for a break for coffee and refreshing cold drinks.

Below Käserstatt, the path continues prettily through fields and light woodland. Some of the largest ants I have ever seen scuttle about on the path, fat and shiny black – at first I think they are beetles, so large are they. At 1320 metres, the path ends and we continue down a narrow lane. The mountains of the Bernese Oberland have come much closer now, and appear much more imposing than they did from higher up. A farm vehicle passes us: its trailer contains a rather unusual harvest of five or six small children. Two French-speaking cyclists overtake us, then stop to let a car pass in the opposite direction. Looking at the car's number plates, the male cyclist comments in a rather condescending tone "Des Jurassiens…", then puts on a very French display of masculine cockiness by leaving the road and cycling along the grassy embankment beside it, as if to say to his girlfriend "Look what I can do".

As we reach the village of Wasserwendi, civilisation creeps in. There are quite a few new and expensive-looking chalets here, all of which have cars with ZH plates in their drives - clearly this is a weekend retreat for rich Zürchers. In front of one chalet, a woman is planing down bits of wood for her half-finished holiday house: presumably either a slightly less rich Zürcherin or a rare example of a Swiss DIY enthusiast.

We reach Wasserwendi with half an hour to spare before the next bus. A restaurant just by the bus stop means another welcome refreshment break, but the service is so slow that only 15 of the 30 minutes are left by the time my Suure Moscht arrives. We almost miss the bus as a result of not being able to find any staff to pay for the drinks, but in the end just make it in time. The bus takes us to Brünig-Hasliberg station, where we only have to wait for two minutes before the train arrives to take us back to Lucerne.